Dublin-born lawyer who became first white minister in independent Zambia

Sat, Nov 1, 2008, 00:00

James Skinner QC:JAMES SKINNER QC, who has died aged 85, was a former chief justice of Zambia. Appointed to the position in March 1969, he resigned in September of that year after clashing with president Kenneth Kaunda over the freeing of two Portuguese soldiers who had been sentenced to two years' imprisonment for illegally entering Zambia.

The two men were freed by another High Court judge - an Englishman - who referred to the offences as "trivial".

Skinner had supported his colleague's decision, and in ensuing demonstrations anti-white demonstrators ransacked the High Court in Lusaka.

Born in Dublin in 1923, he was the son of WJ Skinner, Clonmel, who was county registrar of Tipperary, and his wife Kathleen O'Donnell.

Educated at Clongowes Wood School, he studied at Trinity College Dublin. He was called to the Irish Bar at King's Inns and to the English Bar at Gray's Inn.

After six years on the Leinster circuit, in 1951 he moved to Northern Rhodesia, then a part of the Federation of Nyasaland and Rhodesia.

He soon found himself defending African nationalists who were being prosecuted by the British.

"I suppose it was because I'm a natural radical anyway, and my own family background is Irish nationalist," he recalled.

"I didn't like the social or racial atmosphere of that time, and I reacted against it."

He risked a fine or imprisonment by refusing to register under the Defence Act, which may have required him to enrol in the army. Having joined the United Nationalist Independence Party in 1960, he was appointed as the party's legal adviser.

He was involved in top-level policymaking decisions, and played a major role in drawing up Zambia's constitution.

When he threw in his lot with UNIP he was ostracised by many whites. Friends cold-shouldered him, acquaintances ignored him and strangers insulted him.

He failed to be elected when he stood for election to parliament in 1962, but was elected for Lusaka East in 1964, the year of independence.

He was the only white minister in Zambia's first government, when he held the justice portfolio. He served as attorney general before being appointed as minister for legal affairs in 1967.

He believed that the anti-white riots of 1969 stemmed from the atmosphere created by the early years of white minority rule in Rhodesia and the bombing of Zambia by Portuguese planes from neighbouring Angola.

In his letter of resignation, he stated that the abuse to which he was subjected by UNIP officials must have affected the confidence of "the common man" in him as chief justice and in a judiciary headed by him.

Confidence in the judiciary was a delicate bloom in Africa, he wrote, "and I am not going to risk destroying it in Zambia".

He remained on good terms with president Kaunda after his resignation.

He was succeeded as chief justice by another Irish-born Trinity graduate, Brian Doyle.

One of his officials while he held office was a former legal officer in the Defence Forces, Seamus Heron, grandson of James Connolly.

On his return from Zambia, he practised at the Irish Bar before being appointed chief justice of Malawi, a position he held for 15 years.

During the presidency of the dictatorial Hastings Banda he managed to ensure the stability and independence of the judiciary.

He enjoyed the breathtaking landscape of Malawi, and particularly liked visiting Zomba mountain, which provided a welcome refuge from the relentless heat in summer.

He moved to England and in 1986 he took a further judicial appointment as Social Security Commissioner.

A triple heart bypass did not deter him from continuing his duties until the statutory retirement age for judges. An avid reader of history, he kept in touch with events in Ireland by reading The Irish Times.

He is survived by his wife Brigitte Reiss, daughters Noreen and Maeve and sons Conor, Dermot and Rory.

James John Skinner: born July 24th, 1923; died October 21st, 2008